Updated Massachusetts Bicycle Rules

Finally, a bill fixing some of the problems in Massachusetts traffic laws relating to bicycling has been signed in to law by the Governor. I first started working on this project in 1999, which is what lead to the Guide to Improving State Laws. In that time about half a dozen states have adopted fixes to their laws. A nearly identical bill actually passed both houses of the Massachusetts legislature, only to be vetoed on New Year’s Eve, 2006, by then acting governor Kerry Healy, whose explanation was that bicycling is a recreational activity so there should be no enforcement of traffic violations committed by bicyclists.

The new law requires adding bicycle-related content into basic training of police recruits.  The content “may” be included in in-service training. In fact, the State Police already has content developed by MassBike as part of its (optional) in-service training materials. The fact that there is a new law provides MassBike with a great opportunity to get in-service police training (ostensibly on the new material, but in fact also about the existing law that officers are not informed of).

The bill that passed makes changes to the text without rewriting it cleanly. My original version was more wordy because it rewrote the text. This was a problem, because a) it was too long for most people to read and b) there was no way to tell what is new. It turns out that a huge problem with legislation in Massachusetts is that there is no legislative staff that prepares a neutral summary of what the bill does and compares it to the current law (for example, using strike out and bold face to indicate deletions and insertions). Early on in the process we got complaits from several people about items in the bill which were merely taken verbatim from existing law.

Another part MassBike needs to follow up on (besides the police training) is the enforcement provision — which will now use the same procedure as for motorists. We will need to make sure that the Registry changes the ticket form so that it has a check box for “bicyclist ” and that they have a procedure to insure that the ticket does not affect the bicyclist’s drivers license status or insurance “points” (both as required by the law).

One aspect of the new law is problematic for both instruction and enforcement. The new law does not delete this only-in-Massachusetts rule:”the bicycle operator may keep to the right when passing a motor vehicle which is moving in the travel lane of the way.” Moreover, it adds, “It shall not be a defense for any motorist causing an accident with a bicycle that the bicycle was to the right of auto traffic.” My preferred solution was to change the rules for overtaking on the right so they match the Uniform Vehicle Code and most other states: you can do it if there is enough room, but you have the responsibility to assure that you can do it safely. Massachusetts law says that it’s okay for bicyclists to pass on the right regardless of the conditions — even if the vehicle ahead is signaling right and starting to turn right.  While it’s nice to collect damages in the event of a collision, it’s better to avoid the collision, which requires bicyclists to know when it’s not safe to pass on the right and to wait or pass on the left instead.

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